Congregation grows at Saratoga County’s only mosque

Congregation grows at Saratoga County's only mosque
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HALFMOON — With its brick exterior, corner entrance and sloped gray roof, Saratoga County’s only mosque faintly resembles the Stewart’s Shop it once was.

Inside, the Al-Arqam Center of Saratoga has mostly empty walls, a striped carpet and a steady stream of the faithful five times a day. 

For those who attend prayers there, it can be a quick break from work, a connection with faith closer to home than other mosques or a sense of shared ownership.

Ashar Ata, a trustee on the board of directors, has the third sentiment. He doesn’t think of it as a former convenience store sold by Stewart’s Shops three years back.

For Ata, it’s a mosque, and it’s like a house.

“For anyone who has ever owned a house, this is like owning the house of God,” Ata said. “You belong.”

Since it opened June 2017, the mosque has attracted hundreds of worshipers, including professionals in the county’s growing healthcare and technology sector, local families and Northway travelers seeking the closest place of worship.

Muslims living in Saratoga County previously had to travel to worship centers in Albany, Troy or Schenectady for communal prayer. Islamic guidelines oblige observant Muslim men to pray at a mosque every Friday but encourage congregation whenever possible.

More than 10,000 Muslims live in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy area, according to data recorded nine years back from the American Religion Data Archive. Islam was the second fastest-growing religion in the area between 2000 and 2010.  

As the population burgeoned, so did the demand for congregation space. A decade ago, some Muslim families in Saratoga County offered up their basements and living rooms for group prayer.

“That’s how it all started,” said Raheemuddin Mohammed, a trustee from Clifton Park. “Then we thought we needed a place where we could invite all other family members to pray in congregation.”

FIRST STEPS IN 2011

In early 2011, he, Ata and others subleased a Crescent Plaza office under the name Halfmoon Musalla. In Islam, a musalla is a communal prayer space. A mosque functions similarly, but must be an independent, single-use building that adheres to specific guidelines.

The musalla could fit only 20 people at a time. By fall of that year, the group of eight renters upsized to a basement space at Trick Shot Plaza that could hold upward of 60 people.

As the musalla shifted spaces, it was missing a designated prayer leader. It’s compulsory in Islam for a participant to lead communal prayers — preferably an imam, a community leader proficient in religious texts.          

Although a newcomer to Clifton Park in 2012, Mohamed Rabie quickly gained community support through the musalla as an Islamic scholar. The musalla members appointed Rabie the imam in the following year.

During the volunteer service of Rabie — a senior engineer at GlobalFoundries — programs continued to expand, including addition of a weekend Islamic school for children in 2014.

In 2015, the musalla started offering Friday prayer services. It had a capacity of 50 to 60 people, and organizers were hesitant about expanding their space. But growth of the congregation erased the doubts.

“It makes you think there was a need here,” Rabie said. “We were not paying attention to it, but there was a need.”  

The need wasn’t being met by the musalla, said Sherif Mohamed, owner of AMANA Real Estate Group in Latham.

The building’s basement, he said, a noisy upstairs neighbor, inadequate space, poor heating and meager parking. “Our community members did not feel comfortable going to their events when they had them.”

At that point, the volunteers who had organized the musalla were already in discussions about a permanent home. With the help of the real estate broker, the Masjid Search Committee combed through sites in Clifton Park, Halfmoon and Mechanicville.        

Then Sherif Mohamed drove by a vacant convenience store in October 2016.        

That Stewart’s Shop had relocated westward to the corner of Guideboard Road that formerly housed a Mobil gas station and car wash.

“Automatically, I thought this is the right place,” said Sherif Mohamed, in awe of the building’s condition, size, 3-acre plot and proximity to Interstate 87. These qualities also enticed the Masjid Search Committee when he briefed them.

The property originally was listed at $475,000. After negotiation, it sold in February 2017 at $350,000.

This was about a quarter-million dollars more than the organizers had on hand. But a fundraiser covered the difference, and volunteer labor tamped down the $100,000 cost of gutting and renovating the space.

Highlights included building a separate wall-divided prayer space for women; carpeting the floor with diagonal polka-dotted stripes pointing toward Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the city of Mecca; adding a secure entrance with vestibules; and installing cleansing stations for worshipers to meet ritualistic purification guidelines. 

OPENED DURING RAMADAN

At that point, the building they renovated was given a new name to emphasize worship, education and youth vitality in the Muslim community, the imam said: Masjid Al-Arqam or Al-Arqam Center. The name comes from Dar Al-Arqam, the first house where the Muslim prophet Muhammad preached to followers.

When the new mosque opened in June 2017, the holy month of Ramadan was underway, so there wasn’t one official celebration of the milestone.

“I can tell you honestly from the bottom of my heart that it’s a celebration for us every day when we pray and it’s our place,” Ata said.

Ata, a native of India, is one of three immigrant trustees. The congregants are a diverse mix hailing from Afghanistan to Indonesia, and are sometimes too numerous even for the new mosque, which can accommodate 220.

Events for such festivals as Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha are held at the Sportsplex of Halfmoon or the Halfmoon Town Park Clubhouse, and have attracted crowds ranging from 300 to 500.      

“We cannot accommodate all the people in this masjid so we need to rent a place outside this place,” Raheemuddin Mohammed said.

Within two years, volunteers aim to build an addition to the 2,400-square-foot mosque to hold a higher capacity. Plans also call for more than tripling the current number of parking spaces.

Among other construction plans, trustees plan to eventually build housing for the imam behind the mosque. The imam lives less than seven minutes away from the mosque but would prefer to live on-site to provide prayer services more quickly and avoid driving in dangerous conditions.

Such a residence was initially set to be split between the imam and a property manager. That design is typical in upstate New York, Gavin Villaume, a landscape architect working with the mosque, told the Halfmoon Planning Board in April.  

Planning Board Chair Don Roberts said during that meeting that he would rather have it be a single-family residence uniform with the surrounding neighborhood.

The housing project is still pending through talks with architects and the Halfmoon Planning Board.

Meanwhile, volunteers indefinitely postponed other plans to build a community center for large dinners and events due to lack of funding and resources, Ata said. “And we’re not ready for that yet.”

SECURITY WORRIES

Beyond their dreams of expansion, the mosque leaders face the reality of security. The mosque has security cameras inside and outside the facility to monitor suspicious activity. 

On Thanksgiving day, Ata, whose phone number is connected to the mosque, received a threatening call from a man hurling what appeared to be Islamophobic remarks and death threats. The caller then hung up and called back three times, Ata wrote in a deposition filed with the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are worried about security like our houses so most of us treat this place like our house,” Ata said.

After the massacre of 51 people and wounding of 41 at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, prayer centers across the globe including the Al-Arqam Center beefed up security measures with the assistance of local law enforcement.

Troopers or deputies will often park in the parking lot during Friday prayer and regularly patrol the property. State troopers trained the board members how to handle suspicious activity and active shooter incidents. 

After the massacre, some nearby residents came to the mosque to show solidarity with worshipers.

“And one of the guys said, ‘I can come and protect you while you guys are praying on Friday,’” Raheemuddin Mohammed recalled.



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